Tyranny of other people’s schedules

I read a lot of “X habits of $SUCCESSFUL_PERSON” articles and they usually have a bullet point about getting up early.  It usually reads something like:

I started getting up a 5AM and I found I could exercise, and do email, and read, and think before I started my day

This gets translated over and over again as “Get Up Early!”

Here are some excerpts from one in particular (from a google search)

The time between waking up and facing the rest of the world is crucial to your mindset, as it helps organize the rest of your day. The most successful people know this and use their morning hours wisely. Whatever their routine is, it usually involves getting up quite early.

starts working at 5 a.m. before he gets overwhelmed by the responsibilities of the day

At about 5:30 a.m.

At 6 a.m.

early morning yoga and meditation

uses the short hour between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m.

The overwhelming message is clear.  Early birds catch the worm.

But the more of these I read the other pattern that becomes clear is they miss the point of getting up early.

In a previous job, we had a server farm for a Java application that did a rolling reboot every 15 minutes. 3-5 systems would stay online, and the rest were rebooting.  There were about 30 systems in the farm to handle the work of 5.  Because, the reasoning went, rebooting solved a memory leak.

BZZZZZZT wrong answer, thanks for playing.

Fixing the code would solve the memory leak and allow us to repurpose 25 machines.  Rebooting the systems was a workaround.  We had an answer, but not a root cause.  Well, technically we knew the root cause, but the powers that be decided not to address it.  That’s a different issue…

How does that Java app relate to the article?  Root cause analysis.

What’s the real root cause analysis for “getting up early == success” in these articles? The above article even mentions it as an aside at the end.  These people aren’t successful because they woke up an hour before you do.  These people are successful  because they hacked their schedule.

Here’s the buried RCA:

From start to finish, the daily lives of each successful person listed here is very much dictated by their family and job. But there are definitely some patterns that we can all incorporate into our own lives to achieve higher success and order.

They discount the actual problem being solved.  Other people schedules rule.

What all of these folks did was create time in their schedule that was clear for them to tackle a few key things to help them in they day.

The problem comes from the fact that there are two kinds of tasks, those we can do solo and those  that need other people.  All of these “get up early” people are creating time for solo tasks. They aren’t getting up early to get on conference calls and have meetings.  They are even scheduling around family events like breakfast.

And the “interrupt driven day” is based on the same principle.  When you get interrupted, it’s because you  were working on a solo task and someone with a collective task tries to get your attention.  Even if it doesn’t completely prempt  what you were doing, changing your focus creates the interruption and can make it hard to get back on track.  In fact, the simple change of focus is the interruption.

Great, we know all that, we read the blogs too and see all the multitasking is harmful posts.  Good job reading, you.

Yes, but now lets work on doing something about it.  Here’s my proposal.  Get up whenever you want.  Schedule better.

OK, real world scenario.  I work in a technical sales environment.  That means I have meetings with customers, with vendors,  with sales folks, with other engineers, emails to answer, proposals to write, technology to evaluate, webinars  to record, presentations to create, architectures to document and debug, and a raft of other administrivia.

All of these have individual tasks that fall into the two buckets, solo and collective.  So I want to divide my work day into blocks for each type of task.  At one  time of the day, a completely interrupt driven block for collaboration.  Then, another block for getting sh*t done (er, solo tasks).

But here again enters the tyranny  of other people’s schedules.

In the US, we have this lovely construct called “9 to 5 business hours”.  It’s when cultural convention says work should be done.  It’s also an ironic convention, since stores we use to buy things also follow “business hours” creating this nice little conflict of when we are supposed to be earning money and when we can spend it to get things we need causing weekends to be spent doing things that supposedly are “business hours” tasks.  And the legal US 40 hour work week just passed its 77th birthday (or, 178th depending when you want to start the clock).  But I digress.

So how to align the blocks with the expectation that I’m available “during business hours”?  First recognize that solo tasks are work.  When you are doing a solo task during business hours, you are doing your job (unless you’re posting on Facebook about some awesome party you were at last night, and you aren’t the social media person at work).  Then we can take a chunk of those hours and look to other people’s schedules for the best fit time for the collective part of the day.  There’s a lot of factors that influence this, but primarily based on your  coworkers and your customers.  When do other people need you and when do you need other people (collective remember?).  Don’t forget to factor in time zones.

I’m office-bound and deal with customers in North America, so I have to factor in a 3 hour difference of useful time for collaboration (Sorry Hawaii and Alaska, you’re always going to be a special exception).  If I choose 10AM – 12PM Eastern, that translates to 7AM – 9AM Western.  So 3/4 of my customers will be ok with that.  So I need to pick another block, say 3PM – 5PM Eastern which gives me 12PM – 2PM Western.  That might look good, but there’s another convention I have to consider “lunch hour”, which these days in the US ranges from about 12PM to 2PM.  So, the West Coast is out of luck again.

You can see why all these successful folks are scheduling their solo tasks outside the range of “business hours”, which winds up translated into “getting up early”.

Every good system has some flexibility, so to quote an aphorism:

“You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time”.

John Lydgate

While I can rant against business hours and their outdated modality, I’ve  got  to work within it so I’ll  pick some time that accommodates a fair range of folks and allows me some flexibility. Let’s call it 10AM – 3PM, a 4  hour collective block with an hour break in there  somewhere to eat lunch.  That leaves me 9-10AM and  3PM-5PM for solo tasks.

Great, now that I’ve got  time  windows, how about the work that needs to get done?  Well, that’s the job  of <INSERT YOUR FAVORITE TASK MANAGEMENT SYSTEM HERE>.  The important part is that you put the right tasks in the right buckets and carry tasks back and forth.  Writing a new architecture document results in a peer review and debug session which results in a bug fix session.  Solo -> collective -> solo.

I think the bigger thing is accurately identifying what’s collective and what’s not.  I base it on synchrony and communication.  Obvious? Probably.

Collective tasks use synchronous communication and immediate feedback loops.  Discussions.  Meetings. Phone calls.

Solo tasks use asynchronous communication and delayed feedback loops.  Everything else.  Email!!!

For me, there’s a lot of planning and discovery that can only happen through conversations. For many people, there are probably more solo tasks than collective  tasks and lots of solo tasks masquerading (or being presented) as collective tasks.   Email is probably the biggest source of misplaced collaboration. Email is asynchronous by nature and is a solo task.  You get an email, some time after it was written and sent, you read it, you digest it, you respond.  Then it’s someone else’s turn.  But email is a huge burden on many people because it’s treated as synchronous communication.

However, I can get off my soap box and say that I don’t care how you bucket-ize email as long as it winds up in a bucket.

Now here’s the really hard part.  When you are working in a bucket, you can only work  on things in that bucket.  If you are in your collective zone, you can’t start working on a documentation update for your open source project.  That’s a solo project.  You’ve just interrupted yourself and created a huge opportunity for a preemption.  And preemption is bad,  most of the time.  This is when you need to be actively engaged with coworkers, customers, bosses, vendors, colleagues, to get those things done that need other people around.

That’s a lovely little world you paint but in the real one, my boss and my coworkers and my customers don’t follow it so I can’t possibly do that.  I need to do things the way they want.

That’s interesting, why?  Your boss pays you to be effective at whatever it is you do.  Your coworkers and customers are better served by being more present and effective.  So, how could any of these people complain when you tell them that in order to do the best job for them possible, here are some simple guidelines?  Getting a wrong answer quickly, getting interrupted with something that has a lower priority, getting stuck waiting on someone else so you can finish a task, all of those things are more harmful than asking someone to wait an hour or two for a response.  Especially if it’s done in an upfront and consistent manner.  One of those other recurring things you’ll see in these bullets for success, only deal with email a few times a day.

Ok, so tl;dr what’s the RCA: successful people bucket-ize and prioritize better than you do because you haven’t thought about it.  And the remediation: build a system and stick to it.  Oh, and be ruthless with your categorization of time.

Easier said than done, neh? Got a trick to organizing your day you’d like to share?

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